It’s been a year of difficult and big issues, and one can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed and confused about where to start looking for potential solutions.
Tackling some of the challenges facing our area right now, Senator Joe Nguyen, D-West Seattle, hosted a live streaming discussion last Wednesday with Rep. Eileen Cody, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, Councilmember Lisa Herbold and Councilmember Joe McDermott to address priorities such as the West Seattle bridge project, the county’s COVID-19 response and relief, cooperations between levels of government, concerns about the environment, health care and other topics.
Islanders were watching, including Alexandra Tres of the Communidad Latina de Vashon, who asked about youth mental health access in this time of crisis. The county has dedicated time to offering resources and mental health services, including promoting access to help lines, sponsoring legislation to get more mental health providers into classrooms, and providing support for homeless people with mental health and addiction problems.
A part of the discussion also touched on Vashon. McDermott acknowledged his successes in dedicating $20,000 to the Vashon Food Bank, and he was instrumental in obtaining funding that was awarded to the Vashon Senior Center as a part of the recently passed two-year county budget.
We’re grateful to the problem solvers in our own community and to those in our government who serve us. But as you can see from an article on the front page of this week’s paper, some topics need further focus. Washington state’s $5.90 per $1,000 assessed value limit must be addressed in the near term by the legislature.
Vashon Health District commissioners have passed a budget that will mean that next year, the Vashon Park district will receive substantially less money in tax dollars. This stems from how the state’s tax law is structured, forcing the island’s tax districts — from health care, library and water, to flood protection and the cemetery — into a system where, together, their tax levies cannot exceed a cap of $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed value. If they do, the districts’ tax revenue will be decreased in a particular order, starting with the park district.
For some time, the cracks in this model have been showing, and with the passing of the health care district’s budget, the result, called prorationing, has finally come to a head on Vashon Island, meaning fewer dollars to support recreation programming, maintaining park facilities, upgrading assets, and more. It is a distressing dilemma that is difficult to understand, as the tax laws of the state are, to say the least, positively confounding. And there’s no hope for the park district to get back any of the funds that it needs next year to support its operations.
Elaine Ott-Rocheford, executive director of the park district, has brought up her concern about prorationing with state legislatures. That prompted Joe Fitzgibbon to introduce a bill last winter that would ensure the park district could use other funds to sustain its operations outside of the $5.90 cap. Under Fitzgibbon’s legislation, parks and recreation districts would receive money from the “$.50 cent gap,” a pool of funds available for different needs. That reserve is part of what is referred to as the $10 statutory cap of the state, or the maximum annual rate of property taxes that can be levied on property owners.
This is a really exciting premise, but sadly, the bill never got off the ground. And that was before the health district was in the position it now finds itself in, reducing the income of the park district to finance its own existence given the extreme impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
It must be true that this tax system no longer represents the island population properly. And with the county possibly pursuing additional funds to finance its own growth or maintain its roads, driving other local tax districts closer to the brink, we can only hope that leaders such as Fitzgibbon will pursue a fix that would re-imagine and address this issue in a way that would encourage more cooperation and not pit groups against each other.
That would also mean that taxpayers would get more for what they are paying for. They will receive primary care at the Vashon clinic and can enjoy ample recreation programming and carefully maintained facilities in the many properties of the island’s park district. There is no reasonable justification for why islanders, or anyone else, should have to make a choice between either.